David Randall had a history of talking in his sleep, and the occasional creepy incidence of falling asleep with his eyes open, but his interest in the science of sleep peaked when he hit a wall. Literally. After crashing painfully while sleepwalking, Randall went to a sleep lab. Festooned with monitors in his nostrils, on his fingertip, cheeks and head, a lab tech wreaths him with a blue box connecting all the wires and advises him, “Try to sleep normally.” Welcome to Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep.
Randall’s writing isn’t as breezily hilarious as that of Mary Roach, but Dreamland’s structure owes a nod to her work, particularly when he uncovers uniquely twisted avenues of thought. There’s the matter of legal ethics, whereby a sleepwalker who killed his father-in-law was acquitted of wrongdoing; the irony of sleeping pills whose effectiveness stems from their inducing short-term amnesia, thus helping you forget how much you actually tossed and turned all night; or the inventor of a highly successful treatment for sleep apnea, now patiently waiting for the Westernization of China to manifest itself in a king’s ransom of obesity-related sleep disorders. Strange territory, indeed.
A journalist by trade, Randall is adept at clean, unfussy prose, which makes the crazier stories here stand out in bold relief. Dreamland offers some simple advice for improved sleep (basic behavior modification trumped sleeping pills in one study cited here), but the real fun is finding out how little we truly know about roughly one-third of our time on earth, and the wild and wide-ranging paths we’ve taken in search of answers.